A licence to learn

8th September 2000 at 01:00
Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools in Scotland have published a report on the state of ICT in learning and teaching, and for the first time it will be illustrated on the Web. Douglas Blane reports on some of the schools featured

Last year Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools in Scotland took the innovative step of commissioning a production team, in support of a programme of inspections, to go into selected schools and film examples of good practice in the use of ICT in learning and teaching. For the first time ever teachers can now read an HMI report that not only tells them what happens in other schools but also, by means of hyperlinks on the Internet, lets them see for themselves.

The inspections explored how ICT was improving learning, teaching and pupils' attainment from Primary 1 to Secondary 6 in 30 schools from Orkney to the Borders. Inspectors were looking for good practice, and that is what they found.

Gairloch High School is reached by a road that confidently heads west out of Inverness, but gradually dwindles to a ribbon of pink quartzite along the banks of Loch Maree. Eventually bracken and heather give way to grass and buttercups, and the road falls sharply towards a turquoise sea overlooked by white-painted houses and a cluster of slate-roofed, modern buildings - the health centre, the library and the school, where the annual staff-student hockey match is in progress.

Inside the school, the shouts from the playing-fields fade, and are replaced by the busy hum of pupils working at computers. Modern studies principal teacher and assistant head Jim Henderson explains the background to their use of ICT: "It really took off here when four pupils won a competition sponsored by The Times Educational Supplement (over 10 years ago). They had to write an essay on what our school would do with a computer, and the prize was money to buy one."

Interest grew and more computers were acquired, until nowadays Mr Henderson can't imagine how Gairloch High could function without them: "All the admin is networked - who's arriving today, please-takes, timetables, information about pupils "Some subjects like modern studies have taken it further, into the classroom. We use software that supports emails, mailbox, news and conferences. Pupils can go on the Internet, find information, copy it into their report and edit it. Then they post their work, we pull it up on our computers and I point out good and bad features.

"Motivation is tremendous and because the work is for public consumption, they take more care. It helps their enquiry skills, it supports collaboration and it encourages critical thinking. Also it makes for transparency - if they're aiming for Grade 1, they can see exactly what they need to do."

The situation of Gairloch High - "the biggest catchment area of any school in Britain" - throws a growing problem into sharp relief: "Pupils can continue their work at home - provided they have a computer. What about the ones who don't? Some of them can drop in to use the computers in the library but not many. So we have a pool of older computers they can sign out and take home with them. It has the spin-off that it gets the parents involved too."

The HMI inspections covered all the modes of the curriculum in 22 secondary school departments. In 10 primary schools the inspectors concentrated on language, maths and environmental studies. They found that children were very motivated by ICT and it encouraged good collaboration. They saw very high quality communication and interaction between pupils of all ages.

At Bruntsfield Primary in the heart of Edinburgh there is great excitement because the pupils have just received an email from an ex-classmate in the US, and are keen to answer it. This could be tricky because the children are still learning to read and write. "Nor have they done any typing before," says Primary 1 teacher Karen Richmond, "although they've had some practice with the mouse."

But after a lesson, and with the help of colour-coding on selected keys, they are soon working in pairs on their messages to Carlo.

The head and assistant head at Bruntsfield are enthusiastic about ICT and both have timetabled responsibility for teaching ICT skills. The school has had a computer suite, continually upgraded since 1992, with organised sessions for groups from every class. All the machines are connected to the Internet. There is an ICT after-school club every night of the week, all the software is databased and referenced, and a full-time classroom assistant is dedicated to the computer suite and works on children's ICT skills.

"We develop and build on ICT skills from Primary 1," says assistant head Stewart Crabb, "and currently we're working on a written policy on skills progression using a consultation copy of the new 5-14 ICT guidelines."

Back at the computers, two little girls are deep in conversation about what they want their first ever email to say. But they have already written the most important parts: "Hello CarloI Kisses from Hazel and Chantel."

One of the main conclusions of the inspectors' report is that ICT can have a major impact on the climate for learning and teaching. When used selectively and appropriately, within a broad palette of strategies and resources, it can enhance enjoyment, motivation and time on a task.

This was found even in subjects where enjoyment was once limited to a minority of pupils. At St David's High in Dalkeith, rehearsals for the school concert are in progress, and bangs, crashes, toots and twangs are issuing from the school hall. But when the musicians settle down, it soon becomes clear that school concerts have changed greatly since the dreadful days of six solo singers, a string quartet playing Beethoven, and a massed choir with the good singers at the front and the entire back row under strict instructions to move their lips but not make a sound.

Nowadays we've got drums, guitars and keyboards. We've got mixing desks, samplers, midi sequencing, dedicated computers and sound engineering. Most of all we've got young singer-songwriters and stacks of talent. "The key word is quality," says principal teacher Phillip Thorne. "The children write their own songs and music, perform them and record them - and it's very close to professional quality. They know what commercial music sounds like and they strive for it."

The music department is setting up its own record label to produce albums and singles. All the technology is available to every child and, remarkably, if pupils can find nowhere else to practise they have priority in the staff base. The second-year pupils have just made their subject choice for third-year and two thirds of them - "the greatest number ever in Scotland" - want to continue with music.

To provide a snapshot across the country and a basis for future comparisons the inspectors, in addition to the ICT-focused inspections, analysed almost 100 general school inspection reports. They concluded that good things are happening in some schools, but not consistently across schools, stages and curriculum areas.

In the inspectors' view all subjects and all stages need to ask themselves to what extent ICT can further their aims. Teachers should also be asking if solutions devised for another subject can be transferred to theirs.

They recommend that schools carry out an audit across the curriculum using the new 5-14 ICT guidelines to find out where and how well ICT skills are being taught. They expect to see major changes in schools wihtin five years. The quality the inspectors found in the examples of good practice is, they believe, the entitlement of all children in every school.

A copy of The Use of ICT in Learning and Teaching can be found at www.ngflscotland.gov.ukteachersICTLT and should be available in electronic form by September 26. The video clips were produced by Learning and Teaching Scotland.FUSION2000: A seminar on new 5-14 ICT Guidelines to be published this autumn will be held by Learning and Teaching Scotland on September 28 at 2pm.Trinity Academy will give a presentation on how they use ICT in science on September 26, 10.30am; on the same morning Bruntsfield Primary will talk about how they use ICT in the primary curriculum

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